Growing Up Jewish and Racist

My wonderful wife has a heart of gold. After all the years we’ve been married, she still amazes me. For one thing, she cares deeply for people. For another, she has an intuitive understanding of others that’s almost scary. Words will come out of her mouth that are dead-on perfect while I’m still muddling through my feelings and trying to figure out what’s really going on.

Like last week, for example. We were having lunch in a nearby restaurant on Saturday afternoon. I started chattering about police-involved shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement when my wife’s comment stopped me in my tracks. “Am I the only one who feels like walking up to a black person and apologizing?” she asked.

No, my dear, you’re not. That’s exactly how I feel, though I hadn’t been able to define it. And I suspect there are a lot of us white folks out there who feel the same way.

I can hear the criticism now. “Feel sorry for what? I didn’t do anything to them.” Well, there has to be a collective sense of guilt. For referring to those with a different skin color as “them,” for one thing. There is no “them.” There is only “us.” An injustice done to one is an injustice done to all. We are all connected.

Each Passover, observant Jews read the Haggadah’s warning that he who fails to acknowledge his freedom from slavery on the grounds that he was never personally a slave to the ancient Egyptians is a sinner who, had he lived in Egypt in those times, would not have been deemed worthy to be redeemed.  Dare we ignore our brothers’ legacy of slavery and their continued oppression and marginalization in modern times?  We do so at our peril.

This puts me in mind of the prejudices deeply instilled in me during my upbringing. Trust me, these early influences are extremely difficult to overcome. Intellectually, of course, I know better. But it is frightening how those preconceived notions continue to sit there in my subconscious, waiting for the right moment to invade a split-second thought.

I grew up in a lily white suburban neighborhood where I rarely encountered anyone who looked different than I did. Segregated neighborhoods resulted in de facto segregated schools. Oh yeah, also the teachers all were white. And this was in New York, not Mississippi!

I attended a very large junior high and I don’t think there were ten black kids in the whole danged school. They must have lived right on the district line. The only black kid I remember was named Leroy (hanging my head in shame) and he was constantly in trouble. I watched him set a fire in the boys’ room once.

At home, blacks were schvartzers (or worse, if my parents were angry). The Yiddish word just means “blacks,” but was always uttered in a tone dripping with contempt. By the time I was five years old, I knew that a vast chasm stood between “us” and the schvartzers.

Us: People of the Book. Value education.
Them: People of the Street. Can’t speak English properly.

Us: Doctors, lawyers, accountants.
Them: Maids, cooks, janitors.

Us: Married with two children.
Them: Single women with five kids by different daddies.

Us: Hard-working. Law-abiding.
Them: On Welfare. Criminals.

Us: Sip of wine in synagogue.
Them: Bottle of wine in a paper bag on the street corner.

Us: Kosher
Them: Hazer (pig) lovers

Us: Academic track. College bound.
Them: Detention, suspension, things too horrible to mention.

Us: Success.
Them: Failure.

I learned early on to stay as far away from the schvartzers as possible because they were no-good troublemakers. They would steal your money, beat you up and kill you.

I am crying as I write this.

There is no pennance I can do that would begin to atone for the hate instilled in my heart when I was a kid. Al het shakhatanu… For the sin which we have committed. The sin of hate, for which there is no forgiveness.

Can hate and fear be unlearned?  Can I forget my father’s ugly racial slurs, cruel jokes, imitations?  Can I replace these memories with love and blot out that evil forever?

And then I went to high school and the world changed overnight. It was 1973 and we were now integrated. Uh, sort of.

A lot of the seniors were still hippies with their faded denim jackets, ripped jeans, flower decals, beads, peace sign chains, pot smoke. The school was beyond capacity, bursting at the seams courtesy of the baby boom. And a few hundred of us were black. (I hadn’t yet heard the term “Hispanic.” Oh, you mean Puerto Ricans?)

The school district was heavily into tracking. The extent of one’s exposure to teens of another race largely depended on one’s track. “B” class? (Remedial level) Nearly all black. “O” class? (Average track) About 3 whites for every black. Advanced placement or honors class? Lily white.

Well, everyone has to eat. The cafeteria, you would expect, would be the great equalizer. You would be wrong.

The student newspaper denounced the lunchroom’s “invisible line.” The white kids sat on one side, the black kids on the other. I thought it was just plain dumb. No one dared cross over to the “wrong” side. This self-imposed racial segregation was accepted by most of us as an ironclad rule that could not be violated. I don’t recall any brave soul from either camp ever attempting to break down this barrier.

After a year and a half of accepting without understanding, my mother took a job an hour and a half away and I found myself in another giant high school, this one on the edge of farm country. White as the January snow. I learned what an evangelical Christian is. They learned what a Jew is. I came to the conclusion that being different just wasn’t worth it. I stopped wearing a yarmulke when I ate my tuna sandwich in the cafeteria. I joined the chorus and figured out that it wouldn’t kill me if I sang a song with the word “Jesus” in the lyrics. But the impromptu prayer meetings after school was where I drew the line. So I was never a real native, even though most of the time I could pretend. What if my skin were black? Would I have been able to blend in then? And would I have been welcomed at the prayer meetings?

Flash forward to the present. My efforts at color blindness have met with mixed success. I say “mixed” because there are so many interracial relationships now that I often couldn’t make a racial identification of a particular individual if I tried. I am far more interested in what a person knows and what someone can do than I am in what he or she looks like.

Case in point: My family has become a melting pot. (Whispering: And I love it.). My twice-divorced sister-in-law had married two Hispanic men. We have a lot of fully and partially Hispanic nieces and nephews as a result. They all grew up and many of them got married, to spouses of every race, skin color and cultural background. So when we attend our grandniece’s third birthday party (Hispanic mom and African-American dad), we know there will be a piñata, hard core rap music, and American burgers and hot dogs on the grill.

We all need to be involved in narrowing the cultural chasm, the racial divide instilled in me as a child that I continue to struggle to overcome. I see my landlord as a role model. He and his wife are Ukrainian-Americans. His wife emigrated as a child. He owns his own business and rents us a house that he built with his own hands. They home school their children, attend a Russian church, speak excellent Spanish and hire employees of every race and culture. If the American Dream still exists, surely this is it.

I was disappointed recently when I read about how a “Black Lives Matter” posting on an employee white board (!) at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park was crossed off and replaced with “All Lives Matter.”

Really? With the epic gun violence and shocking murder rate in our country, I am led to believe that life is cheap. It’s hard to believe that “all lives matter” when the pettiest slight will get you shot and no one seems to care if you live or die.

So all lives matter, eh? Do white-skinned people have to worry about racial profiling? Do white-skinned people have to worry about being automatically thought of as criminals? Do white-skinned people have to suffer the indignities of serving as the butt of tasteless jokes based on racist stereotypes? Do white-skinned people resign themselves to being shooting targets for the cops? Do white-skinned people have to live life knowing that many consider them utterly disposable due to their appearance alone?

I was relieved that Mark Zuckerberg chastised his staff for crossing off the “Black Lives Matter” sign. Insisting that “all lives matter” diminishes the pain and suffering experienced by African-Americans. The aggressor is not entitled to share in sympathy extended toward the victim. And don’t tell me that you never did anything to “them,” that what happened to “them” is not your fault. Let me say it again: There is no them! There is only us!

We’re all responsible for this horrible mess. I bristle when I hear the words “check your privilege,” but it’s true! I enjoy white privilege that my darker-skinned brethren will never have. And although I can’t undo that, I can only hope that this privilege will erode through a combination of education, exposure and cultural melting. For it is only then that our nation’s ideal of E. Pluribus Unum will become a reality: Out of many, one.

Code Switching

I don’t usually discuss race, on this blog or anywhere else, unless it is preceded by the acronym “NASCAR.”  Today, however, I’ll give it a go, because I’ve been inspired by the new NPR blog, Code Switch.

At first, I didn’t really know what code switching was.  But then I remembered that in the years that I worked for the state relay service for the deaf, I occasionally heard the term “code switching” used to refer to the phenomenon of CODAs (children of deaf adults) and some hard of hearing people who are fluent in both American Sign Language and English suddenly switching between the two during a conversation, perhaps even during the same sentence.  Of course, bilingual people in every culture do this regularly.  It only makes sense:  Cultural context is everything, and it can be pretty close to impossible to explain a concept native to one language in another.

I find multiculturalism thrilling.  I enjoy being able to experience bits of other cultures and to share some of my own.  Those who can speak two or more languages are able to create bridges that our society sorely needs.  Of course, it is possible to use bilingual ability as a tool to keep others out rather than letting others in.  Growing up, I would hear the Yiddish phrase red Yiddish, der goyim ken nisht farschtehen (“Speak Yiddish, the non-Jews won’t understand us”).  Of course, this can backfire, as described in one of the NPR blog’s stories about two women on a subway switching to French to make comments about a fellow passenger (and being shocked when he responded in perfect French).  Among the hazards of code switching:  This is an equal opportunity game.

Code switching doesn’t have to be between different languages; it can also be among dialects of the same language.  The NPR blog points out that many Americans who naturally speak using a Midwestern, Southern or African-American dialect/accent switch to a standard, white bread, “professional” brand of English on their jobs.  Receiving a phone call at work from Mom and slipping right into one’s natural dialect can be rather jarring to coworkers overhearing the conversation.

Although I’ve resided in California for nearly 20 years now and have a relatively flat accent, coworkers often tell me that they can hear the “New Yawk” in my voice.  They should only hear me on the phone with my mother.  As I discussed in a previous post, the Yiddish is flung about with reckless abandon and I sound as if I’ve spent my entire life in Brooklyn.  My wife, a native Californian and daughter of a Pentecostal minister, has learned to understand me when I slip into that mode.  Well, mostly.  I giggle when she starts peppering her own conversation with schlep, schmutz and oy vey.

But the NPR blog points out that code switching isn’t just about language; it’s about multiculturalism as a whole.  It points out that hip-hop music has either become ubiquitous as it merges and assimilates into the larger culture, or has been (mis)appropriated by whites, depending on one’s point of view.  This, of course, has been going on for a very long time.  For years, my father reminded me that the music of the 1950s became less homogeneous when Hoagy Carmichael sang “white” and Elvis sang “black.”

Meanwhile, today’s white kids listen to rap music and enjoy emulating the clothes, hairstyles, lingo and mannerisms of their black peers.  To relate to kids of any race, teachers need to be fluent in African-American jargon and cadence (yet be able to code switch to standard English with the administration).

I should pause here to say that I am a white boy.  Caucasian.  Despite my eastern European ancestry, all the melanin seems to have skipped right over me, leaving me with skin that is pale as a ghost.  Growing up with parents who have graduate degrees, standard, textbook English is all I learned from square one.

My mother gets upset when my sister calls her a racist.  My mother strenuously objects, citing her early years as a teacher in a heavily African-American public school and how she went into “the projects” to tutor kids in jeopardy of failing when none of the other teachers would do so.  It was just a few years after the Newark riots and most white people were afraid to “go up on the hill.”  Despite all of that, today my mother continues to refer to African-Americans as “colored.”

“Nah, I think they were born that way,” is my father’s usual retort, ever the wit.  Never mind that he habitually refers to African-Americans using derogatory terms that I will not repeat on this blog (or anywhere else).

The NPR blog cites the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s decision to refer to African-Americans as “racialized people.”  Well, how dumb is that!  What about the rest of us?  Caucasian, Asian and all the rest are races too, you know.

The U.S. Census, I’ve learned, can’t seem to decide how to refer to the various races, changing the terminology they use nearly every decade.  These days, of course, most of us have backgrounds consisting of multiple races.  I think of my little grandniece, whom I had the pleasure of spending some time with today.  Her father is Filipino (I think) and her mother is part Hispanic, part Caucasian.  I vote for a check box that just says “cute.”

Racial terminology is, of course, anything but cute.  It is loaded with a sad history of discrimination that continues to this day.  And everyone knows that saying the wrong word can get you in trouble, get you fired from work, get you hauled into court, maybe even get you killed.

The NPR blog mentions that the idealists who hoped to forge a post-racial society have not succeeded in their plans, and that it’s not looking good for the foreseeable future.  Despite all the code switching and the melting pot of cultural norms, for unfathomable reasons we still have to pigeonhole each other with terminology that describes the color of our skin and/or the history of our DNA.

I smile broadly when I see how much my grandniece enjoys watching children’s videos in Mandarin Chinese and in Spanish, and when I observe her expressing what she wants in ASL.  I try to remember to say the words for things in English, Spanish and French.  On the day she was born, I whispered a song to her in Hebrew.

I hope she grows up to be an expert code switcher and that she doesn’t find herself hampered by a lot of inaccurate, unfair and discriminatory racial stereotypes.

And I know that I will be happy with whatever languages she ultimately decides to use, as long as her mother tongue remains the language of love.

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